The 3 characteristics sutta1

Found in the Pali Vinaya, Mahàvagga, 1st Khandhaka

Transl. Bodhangkur Mahathero




Note: During his ca. 40 career as a preacher of dhamma2 the Buddha did not once define the word atta.3



The Bhagavat said:

“Bhikkhus, consciousness4 not SELF.5 Were consciousness SELF,6 consciousness would not deteriorate (i.e. change), and one could have it of consciousness: ‘My consciousness this, my consciousness not this.’

And since consciousness not SELF, so it leads to deterioration, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘My consciousness this, my consciousness not this’.”


Bhikkhus, feeling not SELF …(repeat above).”

Bhikkhus, perception not SELF …(repeat above).”

Bhikkhus, formation not SELF …(repeat above).

Bhikkhus, material form not SELF …(repeat above).”








Bhikkhus, how do you conceive it:” 7

“Is consciousness permanent or transient? ” 

“Transient, Sir.”

“Now is what is transient distressing or not distressing?”

“Distressing, Sir.” 8

“And that which is transient, distressing, changing according to the law, is it clever to see it as: ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my SELF?’” 9

“No, Sir.”10


“Is feeling permanent or transient? …(repeat above).”

“Is perception permanent or inconstant? …(repeat above).”

“Is formation permanent or inconstant? …(repeat above).”

“Is material form permanent or transient? …(repeat above).”



“So, bhikkhus whatever consciousness, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding be regarded as it is: ‘This not mine, this not I am, this not my SELF.’ ” 11


“Whatever feeling … (repeat above).”

“Whatever perception …(repeat above).”

“Whatever formation …(repeat above).”

“Whatever material form, whether past, future or presently arisen, whether gross or subtle, whether in oneself or external, whether inferior or superior, whether far or near, must with right understanding be regarded as it is: ‘This not mine, this not I am, this not my SELF. ”


Bhikkhus, when an Aryan learned hearer sees thus, he finds disgust in consciousness, he finds disgust in sensation, he finds disgust in perception, he finds disgust in formation, he finds disgust in material form. When he finds disgust, passion fades out. With the fading of passion, he is liberated. When liberated, there is knowledge that he is liberated. He discerns: ‘Birth is exhausted, the pure life is completed, the deed is done, there is no further return to this.’” 12,13


That is what the Bhagavat said. The bhikkhus were glad, and they approved his words. Now during this utterance, the minds of the bhikkhus of the group of five were, by not clinging,14 liberated from the intoxicants.



And there were then six worthies (i.e. arahants) in the world.15












1.     The 3-Characteristics Sutta appears either to be an excerpt from the 8-characterists sutra, or the 8-Characteristics Sutta was a later elaboration of the the 3-Characteristics Sutta.            more….

2.     Since the sermons attributed to the Buddha were very much later transmitted in Pali, though he himself would have spoken a Prakrit dialect, no one knows with any certainty what he actually meant when he used the word atta (Sanskrit: atman).

3.     The word atta (or (Sanscrit: atma or atman) has multiple meanings, each one depending on context. Its two most imporatant uses are, firstly, as self-reflexive pronoun, mean self, i.e. as in myself. And secondly, the term atman (or Pali: atta), first introduced in the creation speculations of the Brahadaranyaka Upanishad, and which also feature two other sources of creaation, namely Prajapati and Brahman, it is taken to mean the supreme, because eternal (with which the Buddha could not agree), hence essential breath as sole real and true being, Since the Buddha did not define the term atta so non knows what he meant by the term, his statement that consciousness (or the aggregates, indeed, all dharmas including his own) is anatta is nonsense.

4.     Consiousness happens as one of 5 aggregates (or human sub-functions), the other 4 being feeling, perception, formation (possibly volition)  and material form. The Buddha believed that five aggregates operating together generate the emergent phenomen of any thing that arises and ceases, subject to conditions.

5.     Note that all variations of the continuity verb to be have been omitted. They are not part of the original text. Indeed the use of both is and is not is not legitimate in the Buddhist dharma since both are extremes, the one suggesting absolute permanence (and which is a quality of the Supreme Atman) and the other absolute impermanence (to wit: annihilation). Indeed, both the notion self and not-self are extreme positions, and which the Buddha would not, better could not have taken.

6.     Read: Either the self-reference to an identifiable quantum or thing, or the Supreme Atman.

7.     It looks like the following section dealing with impermanence and its consequence, distress, hence recapping the most basic Buddhist dharma, was inserted into this sutta to link this rather feeble attempt to rubbish the popular Vedanta notion, namely that the atman is permanent and unconditional, hence true/real, to the Buddha’s dharma. The Buddha (or his followers) regularly rubbished the more positive, hence joyful, less morbid beliefs of his competitors and who were poaching his followers. And when he couldn’t ‘best’ them he simply remained silent. Indeed it is implied within the framework of the 12 unprofitable questions the Tathagata refused to answer that he would have refused any question about the atta (or atman).

8.     Whether or not distress arises from transience depends on conditions. The answer here given is naïve, indeed stupid, persuasive only for an audience of illiterate and non-discriminating villagers.

9.     Refers to ownership, continuity and identity. Because of impermanence (therefore missing one of the qualities of the Supreme Atman) ownership of a dharma, such as ‘me’) can’t be claimed, at least not in the long run.

10.      The answer is likewise naïve. Whether or not it is clever to see (of consciousness and the other aggregates/dharmas): This is mine, this I am, this is my SELF?also depends on conditions, for instance the condition of a time frame.

11.    This is true only if the word self (atta) here used refers to the (supreme) atta (i.e. atman).


12.   This paragraph and the next were pinched from the Fire Sutta.Vin. Mv.1:21; S. 35:28


13.   This sutta was pitched to Bikkhus, to wit to committed professional dropouts like the Buddha himself. When his followers, the bikkhus, began to popularise the Buddha’s withdrawal dharma as a stand-alone religion with a positive outcome (i.e. a salvation) amongst the lay folk this extreme position and the means to relief therefrom, i.e. Nirvana, were quietly dropped and other sources of distress, such as greed, hatred and delusion, and desire and so on, and release therefrom, via the Noble 8-fold Path, were proposed.


14.   Not clinging to ‘This is mine, this I am, this is my SELF?and their dire consequences, namely the intoxicants, was the Buddha’s solution to distress. As most ordinary people can observe moment to moment as they suffer the arising and enjoy the ceasing of distress, the Buddha’s understanding of the arising of distress and of its ending were completely wrong (meaning all to superficial). Distress happens (in all biological units) as signal for biological systems failure causing relative survival capacity impairment. Joy signals systems success resulting in relative survival capacity increase. Whether or not a biological system, such as a human, is intoxicated (i.e. physically, mentally, emotionally, morally or ethically) is wholly irrelevant.


15.   The anatta proposition is redundant in that the anicca (i.e. impermanence) + conditioned arising (pratītyasamutpāda (Pali)) = dukkha proposition is adequate for explain the arising of distress (i.e. dukkha). It is likely that the anatta proposition in this sutta was added later to the Buddha’s dharma to discredit the popular atman (i.e. as permanent and unconditional) argument but forward by the Buddha’s Vedanta competitors.


16.   If the basic characteristic of all dharmas, namely conditionality (pratītyasamutpāda), is added in to the above as it should have been, then all dharmas (in including the aggregates) would have 4 characteristics. In the 8-characteristics sutta the following characteristics are added: death, destruction, fading, arising, ceasing. But conditionality (pratītyasamutpāda) is also omitted.


What’s a self?


Anatta as substitute for annicca + conditional arising.



© 2018 Victor Langheld